This is Big
Note: My apologies in advance, you guys. Might want to get two cups of coffee for this one, because it’s really, really long. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. I talk a lot when I get excited.
Two years ago, I decided to take the challenge of National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo–and write a 50,000 page book during the month of November. I was writing already, but I needed a focus, something that was so big of a challenge (a novel in a month? Why not?!) it seemed almost impossible. Quinn wasn’t yet six months old. I think she was sleeping through the night. All I remember is being really, really tired, sitting in front of the computer until about 11:30 every night, and the gigantic mound of laundry piled up on the couch beside me. The end result, which made me so happy to complete, was straight-up terrible. The book, I mean, not the laundry. The laundry’s always terrible.
One year later, after stripping that glob of words down to its basic framework and building it back up to about 70,000 words, one read-through by someone other than myself (thanks, David!), and some strange deadline I put into my head, I started querying literary agents, sending out letters asking for representation, emailing sample chapters and copies of the book when asked, and swallowing my disappointment when the rejections came back. I joked about it on this blog, that I’d written the Great American Chick Lit Novel, pretending I wasn’t taking myself seriously.
Meanwhile, I took my girls to music class, and ran Saoirse back and forth to preschool, and planned the menus for each week. I went out for dinner and drinks with my girlfriends, and talked to David about 529 plans, and folded that stupid laundry. Meanwhile, I kept up my blog, using this site as a way to document this time with our children, a way to force myself to write every day or so, trying not to acknowledge how happy I was when I was writing. I tried to feel proud that at least, at the very least, I’d also written a novel, my first.
One agent, an agent I’d noticed around the internet and liked, also rejected the book. But she had some suggestions, and said she’d look at it again if I wanted. In a frantic, worried blur, I made the changes she recommended and sent it back to her, heart in throat, in two short weeks. I didn’t want her to forget about me. A few months later, I found out, from her, through the beauty of Twitter, that an agent doesn’t forget about a project in which she’s shown interest. That there’s no need to rush. The agent will be there, waiting. They want the good stuff. I know, right? It sounds so simple. But don’t they realize that we, the writers, are afraid of being caught in the current, whisked away before we’re caught? That we fear that the one chance we have to jump out of the water will be the only opening we have? I should’ve slowed down. But that imaginary deadline loomed.
In late spring, I found out, completely excited, that I was pregnant with our third child. I went from kicking cardio butt at the gym at 5:30 in the morning every weekday to sleeping like someone drugged, to dragging myself through the motions of the day, to thinking that the fatigue of the first trimester could never, ever be overcome. Around that time, I got an email from that agent. She rejected the book a second time, but this time–this time–said that if I’d agree to work with her exclusively, she’d write up a letter detailing revisions she thought would make my manuscript better. She said to take my time with it. She made no promises about agreeing to represent it, but said it had potential and that it would take a very strong revision (she actually capitalized “very.” I told you I like a challenge!), and that, basically, something–something–was in there worth working with. I was blown away by her faith in something not guaranteed, her willingness to take a risk, her ability to sift through the muck and focus on the shiny stuff. But I had to decide if I wanted to jump in, too, take the chance, see what happened. I didn’t want to do this halfway. The timing was terrible.
I kept sleeping, in the fog of those early weeks of gestation, bone-sore from tiredness. I curled up on the couch while my husband did the dishes, went to bed by eight-thirty at night because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. On the way up the stairs from the family room to bed, I walked past the desk on which I’d placed the agent’s edit letter, all seven pages of notes and changes that were meant to completely transform the course of my book, bump it into the women’s fiction genre, make it complete. I walked past it, partly because I was intimidated, and partly because I thought I had to barf from morning sickness.
But the nausea cleared. The fatigue lifted. I took the girls to the pool, planned our vacation, and started the revisions. The blog posts grew more infrequent, because when you only have the chunk of time during which the younger daughter is napping and the older daughter is playing quietly or watching Thomas and Friends for the 77th time, and there’s an agent who said she wants to see what you can do, well, you work on showing her what you can do. And then you start to realize that the scary changes she wanted to make, the course the book starts to follow, the way you’re slowing down the hyper momentum of the manuscript to something more thoughtful, something more real, are actually crafting a better novel. You tear apart entire chapters and start over with a shell. You cut out pages of dialogue, an entire subplot. You get the girls a snack and plan to take them out for ice cream later if David comes home early enough, and you work to get the rest of that scene rewritten before you start the sauce for dinner. You don’t call your mother, or text your friends, or check Facebook, because the little one’s diaper needs changed and you can’t figure out what to do with that one stubborn chapter.
Over the summer and early fall, I added another 12,000 words to the novel and got the revisions completed. I had an ultrasound done on what was growing inside my belly. We decided again to not find out the sex of the baby, to wait for the surprise, to have something unknown and out of our control and exciting. Saoirse started another year of school, Quinn decided she hated music class, and I took a couple of friends and family members up on their good-hearted offers to be beta readers and sent them the manuscript, terrified of being seen as a poseur, afraid they would think I was pretending all along to be a writer, wondering if what I had grown confident in was really a veil, a joke, an amateur attempt at what others have accomplished. I’ve worked in journalism, published columns, sputter-started along this journey. I knew I could write, I thought I could write, but mostly, I was afraid I could write.
My readers sent back their changes. I discovered that the friend I thought would be most pragmatic about reading the novel would be the most enthusiastic. I found out that a 34-year-old male lawyer who normally reads historical nonfiction could tear the thing apart like a professional editor. I was reminded of my old writing workshops, that people find joy in finding plot holes, that having a support group of readers–in and out of your target demographic–is one of the best resources a writer can use.
I changed diapers. I attempted to potty train Quinn. I abandoned potty-training Quinn. I started to sit a lot, and eat more apple pie than I should, and wish my back would stop hurting so stinking much. My belly started getting so big I actually hit a man in the back with it when I tried to move past him in a row of seats. I got another ultrasound, because I grow babies the size of small cars. I wondered if I should lay off the apple pie.
I went to a Panera the Sunday before Thanksgiving while David spent the day with the girls so I could focus on making the final revisions. I ran into a friend of mine, there to meet a prospective college student she was counseling, who didn’t know about the book. She saw my computer and notes and Kindle and phone, and smiling, asked me what I was working on. I shyly told her I’d written a book. What I didn’t tell her was that it contained a lot of my hopes and dreams.
I read my novel one last time, finding proof again that that agent knew what she was talking about with those seven pages of edits. I sent it to her a couple of days later, trying not to get too excited by her quick response, her enthusiasm, her Twitter recommendation of my blog. I tried not to think that this could be my validation for wanting to write, this could be the proof I needed to do what David always assumed I would do, that this could be the start of something I wish I’d had the courage to begin a long time ago. I washed some baby clothes and helped David move furniture around in the nursery, and tried to finalize some Christmas shopping. I visited family and went on a date with my husband and got into an argument with my husband and made up. I gave baths and and made Christmas ornaments with Saoirse and baked pumpkin bread. I watched our favorite college football team make their way to the national championship and took the girls to mass and tried not to check my email too often.
I failed. I checked it a lot.
Monday, I got an email asking if I could talk on Wednesday. All of a sudden, it felt like my morning sickness was back.
On Monday night, I got another email asking if we could bump our conversation to Tuesday. I wondered if it’d be bad for the baby if I fainted.
On Tuesday, it snowed. I walked in circles around the house, not able to complete a single task, pacing and making sure my phone was charged. We were stuck at home because of the weather, a day I’d normally cherish for all of its open-ended possibilities. I played outside with the girls, and made pizza for their lunch, and checked the clock every ten minutes or so, marking time.
At one-thirty, my cell phone rang. I listened, and talked, and worried and laughed. I was so concerned about appearing nervous and over-excited I think I almost came off as blasé. About a half hour into the conversation, I started saying “yay” a lot. I mean, a lot. I shouldn’t admit that. And then I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and looked over my notes and sat and stared in air for a few minutes and then went downstairs to a husband who’d worked from home that afternoon and who jumped up and down and went back to folding some towels while I talked on the phone and shushed my oldest daughter who was upset because she wanted to play on the iPad. My husband gleefully announced that if I’m going to keep doing this writing thing, it’s about time I get rid of the PC already and buy a Mac. He couldn’t stop grinning.
I signed a contract, and cut Quinn’s fingernails.
I checked the Twitter notifications popping up on my phone, and fed the dog and cat.
That night, David went out with a friend of his, a night he’d already planned, feeling badly that he was leaving me to walk in circles in the middle of the living room with my mouth hanging open. I ate dinner with the girls, take-out because I’d been so busy trying to come to terms with what had just happened that I’d forgotten all about cooking. I sat there, heart racing, watching my two little people chatter away. “Girls,” I said, “I’m so excited. This is a huge day for me.” Saoirse looked at me, brown eyes wide, and asked, “Because we played outside?”
I am a writer. I am a full-time mom and a wife and a writer now represented by wonderful, enthusiastic, laser-focused Katie Shea of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. I have three and a half weeks until Christmas and a baby that’s due to be born less than a week after that, and I’m expecting Katie’s last round of edits before the holiday so we can have this book ready to go shortly after that. I’ve written a women’s fiction novel and want to write another one and have to register Saoirse for kindergarten in January.
Life is weird. Life is good.
It’s been two days, and my nerves haven’t settled yet. I don’t know if that’s embarrassing or understandable, but when I left teaching after the girls were born, and people asked me when I’d go back to work, I never answered. Because of this. This possibility. The chance to take the jump at it and chase it and try to catch it, to keep running after it because it’s too much fun to run. Saoirse came up to me today after school, after having played with her cars for a while. She’d been thinking about it: “Mom! I was the weather helper today at school!” She’d gotten to count the days on the calendar, and lead the class in their weather song, and describe what was happening outside the window. It was the job she’d been hoping for all year long. She spoke with such an awed pride, a hushed sort of excitement. She got to be the weather helper.
I get it, kiddo. I get it.